Political big-guns trade blows over public spending – and when to cut it

PRIME Minister Gordon Brown and Conservative leader David Cameron locked horns over the economy yesterday, as the main parties intensified their efforts to draw clear general election battle lines over spending cuts.

Mr Cameron accused the government of putting "naked political considerations" before the national interest by opposing early cuts in public spending. But Mr Brown hit back, warning that moving too fast would wreck the "fragile" recovery.

They traded blows at rival press conferences ahead of the release of official figures today, which are expected to suggest the recession is over.

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The Tory leader said that would be "very good news", but risked being a blip without urgent action to show the UK was intent on slashing its spiralling 178 billion deficit. He has promised an emergency budget to cut Labour's 707bn spending plans for 2010-11 if the Tories win the expected 6 May election.

"If we are going to have to wait until May for an election – and if there is going to be a budget in March – they need to show how they are going to start (making cuts] now," he said. "Now they are about to tell us that the economy is growing, they have no further excuse to delay action except naked political calculation."

The government's plan to halve the deficit by 2014 had failed to convince international markets, he said, putting the UK in danger of following Greece in having its credit rating downgraded.

"It's like a credit card – the more we spend and the longer we wait to pay off our bills, the worse it can get," he said.

But within an hour, the Prime Minister opened his own press conference with a vehement defence of his attempt to fund a "wave of social mobility" to secure Britain's recovery.

Immediate spending cuts would be "the biggest mistake", he said, insisting his approach was backed by other governments and the International Monetary Fund.

"There are dangerous global forces … which mean that the world and the UK economy remain fragile," he said. "That is why we are all agreed around the world that we must reduce our deficits steadily, to a plan, but that we must do nothing this year which would put recovery, growth and jobs at risk.

"The biggest mistake we could make would be to withdraw now from the supportive actions we need for growth and jobs."

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Vince Cable of the Liberal Democrats accused the Tories of being "dogmatic" in their insistence on swift cuts and said correctly timing reductions in spending would be a tough balancing act.